When most people think of sports, what probably comes to mind most often is a professional game or match viewed on television, a live event one can go to in support of their school, or the youth sports that their kids participate in. However, there is another side to sports that has a ripple effect on their community or region.
That was the topic of a recent Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce discussion entitled “757 Vision Series: Sports in the 757.” In his opening remarks, Bob McKenna, President/CEO of Virginia Peninsula Chamber of Commerce stated that sports not only encourage a healthier lifestyle, but also have many positive effects on communities. In addition to driving enthusiasm, pride, togetherness, and camaraderie amongst athletes and spectators, sports teams often raise money and support charitable causes, and can be a major boost for local economies.
On a national level, sports tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry in the United States. How can Hampton Roads come together to bring in more events, encourage out-of-area sports fans to come here, and build local economies?
“Prior to the pandemic, the Hampton Roads region was beginning to see a resurgence in our regional collaborative efforts, and some very promising signs of economic growth and vitality,” said McKenna. “We must now recommit our regional efforts to reignite that energy, optimism, and sense of collaboration.” The panel, moderated by Will Driscoll, Executive Director of Virginia Sports Hall of Fame, discussed how this could be achieved.
Before expanding to a national level as a region, each of the seven cities that make up Hampton Roads are creating opportunities to attract more attention to their individual municipalities, which will hopefully create a greater focus on the area as a whole.
One example of this is the recent move by Williamsburg City Manager Andrew O. Trivette reaching out to the county administrators of James City County and York County to jointly develop an indoor recreational facility for residents and tourists on the grounds of the Colonial Williamsburg Visitor Center. The new 30,000-square-foot HR SportspleX in Newport News is another indoor facility trying to bring in local, regional, and national leagues and spectators.
Mike Vest, Co-Founder and Chairman of Lionsbridge FC, explained how having a professional soccer team in Newport News has helped to create excitement on the Virginia Peninsula and surrounding areas, but also far beyond southeastern Virginia.
“Maybe you’ve never been to Oklahoma, but you know they have an NBA team,” he said. “Maybe you’ve never been to Kansas City, but you know they have the NFL and Major League Baseball. I think what having a professional sports team does is elevates the market perception. It elevates the quality of life. It brings people together. It also elevates the brand perception of your market. It’s almost like an advertisement for your city every single time you go on road games.”
In Hampton, there are a number of attractive venues ready to attract attention, including Langley Speedway, the Boo Williams Sports Complex, the Hampton Roads Convention Center, and the Hampton Coliseum. Hampton recently upped the ante by breaking ground on the Hampton Virginia Aquaplex.
“We have hosted swim meets in the past, but we didn’t have a facility that meets USA Swimming specifications for national competitions,” said Mary Fugere, Director of the Hampton Convention and Visitors Bureau. “This facility will allow Hampton and the region to host USA Swimming regional and national events, all within walking distance of neighboring hotels.”
Ultimately, the idea is to bring in events that not only encourage overnight stays in Hampton, but also dining and shopping, and experiences beyond the venue. For families using the event as a vacation destination, the Aquaplex will also have a splashdown waterpark and lazy river, so children that are not competing can also enjoy the experience.
One tactic the Hampton Convention and Visitors Bureau is using is to create a guest experience that keeps events coming back without having to pitch them again. “We try to be present at every venue, every competition that the Hampton CVB has influenced to let visitors know how welcomed and how valued their event is to the city,” said Fugere. “We try to have a presence to let people know about all the incredible activities that are available to enjoy in Hampton, but also in neighboring cities.”
As for expanding the region’s visibility and bringing in new sports tourism opportunities, Claudell Clark, Executive Director, Hampton Roads Sports Commission believes Hampton Roads has great potential.
“Increasing the infrastructure—the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel is being expanded and some other routes from the Peninsula to the Southside are being upgraded,” Clark said. “That’s going to help, because one of the main concerns of a large organization coming to this area is transportation to and from the event. With new infrastructure in place, could we not have an NCAA carnival where multiple cities in our area would be needed? We’re certainly working on these things and looking at ideas to bring both sides to work together. It’s just a matter of expanding on what we’re currently doing to the region as a whole.”
What about the possibility of bringing in a professional sports team from the National Basketball Association, National Football League, or Major League Baseball? Clark thinks that’s also a very good possibility.
“We have to market ourselves as a singular region when you talk about a professional sports team,” he said. “When we do that, we’ll be able to provide the concessions they ask for. It’s more than building an arena or making a bid. Cities have to come together to provide all sorts of needs the team demands. So, it’s a matter of our community leaders, our community stakeholders, our CVB personnel all coming together. When that takes place, or when that desire takes place to say we have the resources, we have the infrastructure, we have the bid package we’re ready and willing to put up to attract a team, only then will that become a reality.”
Clark believes we will ultimately have a professional sports team here, because leagues are always trying to expand and are looking for greater markets to attract new fans. Vest agrees.
“We’re the second-largest market in the country to not have Major League sports, so we’re certainly on the list,” he explained. “I might be getting this backwards, but Oklahoma City is one spot ahead of us and Jacksonville is one slot smaller. Both of those cities already have Major League teams. So, I think it can happen for us.”